The SEIU fought for a $15 min­i­mum wage. It’s still fight­ing for its fu­ture

“We can’t sur­vive in a world where the oxy­gen is be­ing cut off”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENT - −Josh Eidel­son

By 2020 there will be a $15 min­i­mum wage in ef­fect for fast-food work­ers in New York City, for em­ploy­ees of large com­pa­nies in Seat­tle, and for all work­ers in Los An­ge­les. On March 28, Cal­i­for­nia Gover­nor Jerry Brown an­nounced a deal to make the $15 wage stan­dard through­out the state by 2022. Last year, Democrats in Congress pro­posed mak­ing $15 the na­tional start­ing wage, re­plac­ing the $7.25 fed­eral min­i­mum that pre­vails today.

None of that would have been pos­si­ble with­out the union-con­ceived Fight for $15, a four-year-old ef­fort that’s been or­ga­nized la­bor’s most ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal cam­paign in re­cent mem­ory. “On the po­lit­i­cal level, it’s def­i­nitely work­ing,” says Vin­cent Ver­nuc­cio, who di­rects la­bor pol­icy for the Mack­inac Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy, a Michi­gan­based free-mar­ket think tank. The Fight for $15 was the brain­child of the

Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional

Union, the sec­ond-largest in the U.S., many of whose 1.9 mil­lion mem­bers work for lo­cal or state gov­ern­ment or in tax­payer-funded health-care jobs. Since 2012, SEIU has sunk millions of dol­lars into the Fight for $15 to pres­sure fast-food cor­po­ra­tions to al­low union­iza­tion, lobby elected of­fi­cials to pass higher wage laws, and sup­port worker walk­outs and mass demon­stra­tions.

SEIU’s pres­i­dent, Mary Kay Henry, is gam­bling that the Fight for $15 will help save her or­ga­ni­za­tion, which like all U.S. unions faces se­ri­ous threats to its fu­ture. Henry says in­creas­ing stan­dards for the worst-paid work­ers is bol­ster­ing her mem­bers’ ef­forts to win big­ger raises. SEIU lead­ers also be­lieve pres­sure on fast-food cor­po­ra­tions will even­tu­ally yield a deal that cov­ers millions of work­ers, im­proves their lives, and in­cludes a fund­ing mech­a­nism for the cam­paign to con­tinue— even if the re­sult doesn’t look like a tra­di­tional union. “We bar­gain in the way we know how,” Henry says. “We’re also tak­ing risks in build­ing a move­ment that’s go­ing to birth the next form of worker power.”

Unions are in a weaker po­si­tion today than they’ve been in decades. In Fe­bru­ary, West Vir­ginia be­came the fourth state in as many years to pass a law letting work­ers in the pri­vate sec­tor opt out of pay­ing union fees, even if they’re cov­ered by union-ne­go­ti­ated con­tracts. A 2014 de­ci­sion by the U.S. Supreme Court banned manda­tory union fees for Med­i­caid­funded home-health aides, SEIU’s fastest-grow­ing membership group.

On March 29, the court is­sued a split 4-4 rul­ing in a case chal­leng­ing

manda­tory union fees for public­sec­tor work­ers cov­ered by union con­tracts. The dead­lock leaves rules al­low­ing such fees in­tact, but other chal­lenges have al­ready been filed in lower courts. That means the Supreme Court may choose to re­visit the ques­tion af­ter the seat left va­cant by the death of Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia is filled. Los­ing manda­tory fees, unions say, would drive their share of the U.S. work­force be­low today’s 11 per­cent, down from about one-third 50 years ago. “We can’t sur­vive in a world where the oxy­gen is be­ing cut off,” says Larry Han­ley, pres­i­dent of the 190,000-mem­ber Amal­ga­mated

Tran­sit Union.

Be­fore be­com­ing SEIU’s pres­i­dent in 2010, Henry was head of its health­care divi­sion. Un­der her lead­er­ship, it suc­cess­fully union­ized home-health aides by get­ting states to treat them as pub­lic em­ploy­ees rather than in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors and cut deals with hospital chains that made it eas­ier to add more work­ers to the union. As pres­i­dent, Henry quickly moved to per­suade union lead­ers inside and out­side SEIU that the move­ment was on a tra­jec­tory to obliv­ion un­less it could find ways to bring more work­ers un­der the um­brella of or­ga­nized la­bor. “No mat­ter how suc­cess­ful SEIU will be, it can­not win in the long term un­less we cre­ate a broader move­ment,” says Eliseo Medina, SEIU’s for­mer sec­re­tary-trea­surer. “That was the con­text.”

Cen­tral to Henry’s so­lu­tion was tether­ing SEIU, long a re­li­able source of Demo­cratic cam­paign vol­un­teers, to a pub­lic-ad­vo­cacy ef­fort against in­come in­equal­ity. In 2011, SEIU cre­ated what it called the Fight for a Fair Econ­omy, which aimed at in­tro­duc­ing wages into the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion be­fore the 2012 elec­tion. “We made a de­ci­sion not to make it an SEIU thing,” avoid­ing brand­ing the cam­paign with its sig­na­ture vi­o­let logo, says Neal Bisno, who heads SEIU’s health-care-work­ers union in Penn­syl­va­nia. “We lit­er­ally took off our pur­ple T-shirts.” In Fe­bru­ary 2012 an in­ter­nal SEIU memo out­lined a plan to po­si­tion unions as an an­swer to in­come in­equal­ity, in part by mo­bi­liz­ing fast-food work­ers.

While SEIU has been fund­ing and di­rect­ing the Fight for $15 from the start, lo­cal groups such as New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change and Chicago-based Ac­tion Now served as the cam­paign’s ini­tial pub­lic face. Un­til the Cal­i­for­nia deal, many of its vic­to­ries were at the city level. New York Gover­nor Andrew Cuomo is also push­ing for a statewide $15 min­i­mum for all work­ers.

Yet to crit­ics, the Fight for $15 amounts to a feel-good dis­trac­tion from the real prob­lems SEIU faces. The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which long touted it­self as Amer­ica’s “fastest-grow­ing union,” re­ported about 34,000 fewer mem­bers at the end of 2015 than in 2011. The prob­lem, some SEIU vet­er­ans say, is how to jus­tify the con­tin­ued out­lay for min­i­mum-wage protests on be­half of nonunion work­ers in light of the de­cline in dues-pay­ing mem­ber­ships. Just as AARP re­lies on the money it makes in roy­al­ties from li­cens­ing in­surance and other prod­ucts, SEIU needs to find a fund­ing stream to pay for its so­cial-jus­tice work, says Andy Stern, who pre­ceded Henry as SEIU pres­i­dent. The union can’t just keep trans­fer­ring rev­enue it makes from bar­gain­ing con­tracts to pay for its so­cial jus­tice work, Stern says, “be­cause col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is shrink­ing.”

To Henry’s al­lies, that’s an out­moded way of think­ing about la­bor. SEIU Health­care Illi­nois Pres­i­dent Keith Kelle­her says a po­ten­tial model could be the New York–based Free­lancers

Union, which doesn’t have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing deals with in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies. In­stead, it funds it­self by tak­ing com­mis­sions on health in­surance and other ser­vices sold to its mem­bers. “If it has the power to raise wages and it con­tains a model for or­ga­ni­za­tional re­siliency and stan­dards en­force­ment, does it mat­ter?” asks David Rolf, pres­i­dent of the largest SEIU lo­cal in Wash­ing­ton state. Given the chal­lenges unions face, Henry says, “you can’t go smaller in this mo­ment. You have to go big­ger.”

The bot­tom line SEIU, the sec­ond-largest U.S. union, has won a $15 min­i­mum wage in Cal­i­for­nia but no union con­tracts for fast-food work­ers.

New York,2015

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